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Kampung Life: The last villages in Singapore and the stories behind them

Besides Kampong Lorong Buangkok and Pulau Ubin, we also look into some of the now-defunct villages and what they have become today

Cam Khalid
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Cam Khalid
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Let’s be real: Singapore isn’t synonymous with the rural idyll. The slick, modern city-state is known for its urban sprawl, and shiny, soaring skyscrapers. And even if you think of Old Singapore, you’re likely to picture the iconic, colourful shophouses instead.

However, back before brick and mortar are a thing, pockets of verdant land were occupied by villages – or ‘kampung’ in Malay. Each kampung featured traditional Malay attap houses, complete with thatched roofs made with attap leaves, and walls made with hardwood planks overlapping each other. Some had houses with zinc roofs instead – this is the more common version in Singapore’s last remaining villages.

As your grandparents – or even parents – would tell you: kampung life was simple back then. The elderly would sit out in their verandas, the chickens would cluck away in the coops, the neighbours would pop by unannounced, and the whole village would come to your rescue if you needed any help. Rooted in the country’s humble past, the kampung spirit refers to a culture of camaraderie, trust and generosity. While this continues to exist in modern Singapore, it’s more apparent in the kampung where residents are close-knit and neighbourly towards each other – something you rarely see in HDB flats anymore.

However, with the increase in high-rise buildings, many kampung houses have been bulldozed. Today, there are only two villages left in Singapore, but their future remains uncertain. This piece of heritage could soon be nothing more than a memory if not preserved. Here, we shine a light on the last remaining ones and the tours that will give you a taste of kampung life, as well as some known villages that are gone but not forgotten.

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The last kampung

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This historic slice of land has narrowly avoided redevelopment once, but its future remains uncertain. While it's still around, take an afternoon off to experience life as it was before HDB flats were introduced. However, before it became a kampung, it was a swamp. It was then purchased by a traditional medicine seller named Sng Teow Koon in 1956, who then rented out small plots of land to Malay and Chinese families for them to build houses.

Today, there are less than 30 families residing here, including Sng Teow Koon’s daughter. The community remains tight-knit, so everyone knows everyone, and keeps their doors wide open as a sign of the trust and community we know as 'kampung spirit'. They’re used to curious visitors, so you're free to walk the streets – just make sure not to pry into their humble abodes without permission.

CHECK IT OUT If you’d like to step into one of the kampung houses and have a chat with the residents, sign up for Let’s Go Tour Singapore’s Kampong Experience ($200). The guided private tour takes you through the quaint village where you’re unlikely to find the usual modern trappings – besides wi-fi. For a sample of kampung life, you’ll be invited to play a couple of old-school games such as five stones and marbles, make your own zero point rope out of rubber bands, and beat the heat with some handmade ice lollies.

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  • Pulau Ubin

Besides Kampong Lorong Buangkok, the other remaining kampung can be found on the offshore island of Pulau Ubin where time seems to have stood still since the 1960s. With wooden houses including a century-old abode, winding woodland paths, and rich flora and fauna, it offers a unique off-the-beaten-track experience. About 38 residents still call the island home. However, its history dates back to the early 1800s where the earliest inhabitants were the Orang Laut (aka sea nomads), and the indigenous Malays of Bugis and Javanese origins.

It’s also the only place in Singapore to experience the rustic way of life – a grounding antidote to the urban existence on the mainland. There’s no electricity and running water here, so residents operate diesel generators for electricity and obtain their water supply from wells. For subsistence, they depend on traditional farming and fishing.

CHECK IT OUT If you’ve ever wondered how a typical Chinese kampung house looks on the inside, here’s your chance. Previously owned by a local provision shop owner, the residence has been conserved as a demonstration space and is completely furnished with old household items including chairs, cupboards and even cooking utensils to complete the lived-in look. The house is only accessible as a pit stop when visitors go on NPark’s Kampong Tour (temporarily suspended due to the current Covid-19 restrictions).

Gone but not forgotten

Kampung Khatib Bongsu

THEN Before it was demolished in 2007, Kampung Khatib Bongsu had multiple zinc-roof houses, artificial ponds used for prawn rearing, and wooden jetties built on the river. Said to have existed by 1889, it was situated in the forested area in Yishun, near the mouth of Sungei Khatib. It was also a prime spot for nature lovers who would come down to trek and bird-watch. Other popular activities include fishing and durian-picking. However, these activities were put to a stop when the demolition took place.

NOW The scenic stretch of Sungei Khatib Bongsu – which is dominated by mangrove forests and mudflats – attracts many birdwatchers, joggers, cyclists, and fishing enthusiasts. Parts of the surrounding area also make up land that has been used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as a military training ground since the early nineties. Other parts will form the new nature park which will be ready by 2024.

Geylang Serai

THEN Geylang Serai’s roots can be traced back to the 1890s when the Malays and Orang Laut were forced by the British to relocate further inland and away from their original settlements at the mouth of the Singapore River. The name Geylang Serai hints at the village’s past as a lemongrass plantation. 

During the Japanese Occupation, the area’s coconut and rubber plantations were replaced by tapioca which gave nearby Kampong Ubi its name (‘ubi’ means tapioca in Malay). With many Malay settlers calling Geylang Serai and its neighbouring kampungs home, the area soon became recognised as the Malay emporium of Singapore. 

NOW Things started to really change in the 1960s when the number of kampungs declined, and more modern developments such as HDB flats, shopping malls and cinemas were introduced. By the 1980s, Geylang Serai became a modern residential district with no old-school kampung in sight.

But all is not lost. The architecture of Geylang Serai Market and Wisma Geylang Serai is a nod to the lost kampung, complete with a double-pitched roof and designs that draw inspiration from the serai plant, ketupat, and serambi on stilts. Check out our guide to Geylang Serai for things to do in the neighbourhood.

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Nee Soon Village

THEN Located at the intersection of Thomson Road and Sembawang Road, Nee Soon Village was one of the oldest Chinese kampungs. It has a post office, a community centre and a market. It’s also believed to have originated during the 1850s, and was called by the name Chan Chu Kang before being renamed after Lim Nee Soon, a prominent businessman who contributed significantly to the rubber industry.

NOW Business was as usual at the kampung until 1979 when the popular Nee Soon Market was destroyed in a fire. Soon after, the rest of the village was demolished in the 1980s and after major redevelopments, Yishun New Town was established. Part of it has also become Springleaf Nature Park, which has high biodiversity and makes for a scenic stroll.

Changi Village

THEN Changi was an idyllic village in the pre-war years. Then somewhere between the 1890s and 1920s, the British troops moved in and transformed it into a bustling place of recreation where military men and their families, as well as local bargain hunters, gathered for cheap buys and more. But don’t expect the typical colonial bungalows. Changi Village was still made up of attap houses up to the 1960s.

NOW Changi Village has seen many changes. After the withdrawal of the British troops in the 1970s, the once blooming thriving suburbia had become a struggling kampong. This resulted in the government’s plans to reinvent Changi Village. 

The land around Changi was redeveloped for the construction of the Changi Airport – the world’s best airport, mind you. And kampung houses at Changi Village were replaced by low-rise HDB flats and amenities such as a bus terminal and a hawker centre, which is popular for its nasi lemak. Despite the major facelift, Changi Village continues to be a laid-back destination a la the good ol’ kampung days. Check out our guide to Changi for things to do in the neighbourhood.

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Kampong Gelam

THEN Back in the 1820s, Kampong Gelam was a fishing village due to its location by the Rochor River. It was also once reigned by Malay Sultans and housed Sultan Hussain Mohammed Shah, his family and entourage – all reportedly to be over 600 people. His palace, the Istana Kampong Gelam (now Malay Heritage Centre), was also surrounded by small kampung-style houses that housed the Malay and Arab communities, many of whom were merchants. 

NOW The neighbourhood has since transformed into one of Singapore's oldest (and hippest) enclaves. Now, it's a melting pot of vibrant cultures from all over the world, majestic cultural buildings, eye-popping street art, a myriad of restaurants and bars, and trendy shops. Check out our guide to Kampong Gelam for things to do in the neighbourhood.

Pulau Tekong

THEN Before it became the setting for many National Service (NS) ghost stories, Pulau Tekong was a thriving trading station for Pulau Ubin and Johor. By 1898, the offshore island had many kampungs dotted around the island. Before it was cleared for military use, it had about 5,000 inhabitants, the last of which relocated in 1987.

NOW Today, Pulau Tekong is used exclusively as a training base for various Singapore Army Units, including NS.

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Pulau Seking

THEN Pulau Seking was Singapore's second last offshore village with 44 kampung houses and no roads and cars. It's believed to have roots dating before 1819, with villagers being descendants of the original Orang Selat.

NOW Its last islanders were relocated in 1994 to make way for a landfill operation.

Blast to the past

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